The cathedral’s statement makes collusion clear

It is now clear that the authorities at St Paul’s Cathedral were complicit in this morning’s violent eviction of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp.

Along with several others, I was dragged by police from my knees as I prayed on the steps of the cathedral. My Ekklesia colleague Jonathan Bartley was kicked in the back as he was similarly removed. An Anglican was pulled away as she she sat with her hands held prayerfully together. A Quaker activist was hauled down the steps as he called out the Lord’s Prayer.

The situation was of course far worse for those who have made their home in the camp over the last four months. They saw it viciously ripped down in front of them.

The eviction order applied only to land owned by the Corporation of London. It did not apply to the cathedral’s land. The police said at the time that the cathedral had given them permission to forcibly remove people from the steps. Today there have been conflicting reports about the extent to which the cathedral sanctioned the action.

The Cathedral Chapter published the following statement this morning:

“In the past few months, we have all been made to re-examine important issues about social and economic justice and the role the cathedral can play. We regret the camp had to be removed by bailiffs but we are fully committed to continuing to promote these issues through our worship, teaching and Institute.

“The cathedral is open today and set aside for prayer and reflection. The cathedral is accessible to everyone. The area currently cordoned off is for essential repairs to damaged paving. Clergy are available throughout the day for pastoral care and support.”

The statement adds insult to injury. I am truly offended by being told that “the cathedral is accessible to everyone” when I was three times removed while attempting to pray there last night (twice on the steps and then again for being “too close” to the steps). I am pleased that “clergy are available throughout the day for pastoral care and support”. Where were the clergy last night, as people sat crying while their homes were destroyed?

The statement led BBC Radio 4 to report that “St Paul’s Cathedral has expressed regret..”, but this can give a misleading impression. The statement expresses “regret that the camp had to be removed by bailiffs”. But it did not have to be removed by bailiffs. The cathedral’s statement gives the lie to the notion that they are neutral on the question of eviction. Even if they are argue that eviction was necessary, this is a far cry from backing police who are throwing praying Christians from the steps of a church.

The cathedral’s press office has been telling journalists today that “the police did not ask for permission from us regarding any aspect of the action taken last night”. At first glance, this appears to suggest that the police were lying. However, it gets more complicated. The press office’s comment goes on to say that “we were clear that we would not stand in the way of the legal process or prevent the police from taking the steps they needed to deal with the situation in an orderly and peaceful manner”.

This implies that the cathedral had given the go-ahead in advance for police to do what they considered necessary. This is arguably worse. It would stretch credulity to breaking point to suggest that the cathedral authorities did not realise that people were likely to be removed from the steps. Given that they knew of plans for a ring of prayer at the camp, last night’s images can hardly have been a surprise to them.

The Cathedral Chapter must now tell us clearly exactly what they knew and when. They must comment explicitly on the issue of Christians being dragged from their knees as they prayed on the steps. If they think this was right, they should say why. Furthermore, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, needs to tell us how much he knew and what he thinks about it.

Throughout this controversy, the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral have been divided and inconsistent. The cathedral authorities have swung back and forth, repeatedly giving out mixed messages about their loyalties. That, at least, is over. The cathedral’s authorities last night made their loyalties clear for all to see.

Urgent questions for St Paul’s Cathedral

I have been forcibly removed from buildings by police on several occasions, but never before have I been dragged from the steps of a church as I knelt in prayer. I am profoundly shocked to have been dragged from my knees as I prayed about economic injustice on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

What is even more alarming is that this seems to have been done with the support and approval of the cathedral authorities.

The incident took place during the forced eviction of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp. I have not long got back home, having spend the night at the eviction. I was praying with other Christians. We declared our solidarity with people of other religions and none who are resisting economic injustice with active nonviolence.

On two occasions, the police physically pushed back a group of people who were praying. Later, we decided to pray on the cathedral steps. We knew – or thought we knew – that we couldn’t be removed from there, because the eviction order related only to the land owned by the City of London Corporation. It didn’t cover the cathedral.

But then police threatened us with arrest if we did not move. They told us, several times, that the cathedral had given them permission to remove us.

I was one of several people who were removed while praying. I’m not sure how many. There was Anglican, Quaker and Buddhist involvement, and probably more. Some were hurt more than me. One Quaker was carried down by several officers as he loudly prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I was dragged away from the steps by two policeman, but I returned shortly afterwards. I was recognised, and thought I would be arrested, but I was again removed to the bottom of the steps, which the police now surrounded.

I knelt there reciting Psalm 23 (which got a bit garbled in my confusion), before the police told me I was too close to the steps. I again politely refused to move, and was carried further away.

This whole outrage raises urgent questions for the cathedral authorities and the bishop of London.

  • Were they aware of the eviction date and time before it happened?
  • If so, did they attempt to influence the procedures in any way, for example by arguing for a more humane time of day?
  • Did they really give permission for the removal of peaceful people from their steps? If so, when did they do so?
  • Why did they choose to take this action?
  • Do they still believe it was the right thing to do?

Throughout the night, we were approached by people, many of them non-Christians, who thanked us for praying at the eviction. As we watched the people destroy their peaceful camp, I wondered if it was enough to offer. But it was apparently too much for the Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Wallace Benn and Stephen Green – the confusion continues

The saga of Wallace Benn and the pro-rape booklet goes on and on. Having first withdrawn his endorsement of the booklet, then apologised, he has now offered what appears to be an attempt at an explanation.

Wallace Benn, the Suffragen Bishop of Lewes, recommended a booklet called Britain in Sin, written by Stephen Green of Christian Voice. The booklet supports the legalisation of rape within marriage and the criminalisation of same-sex relationships. It opposes the welfare state, equal pay for men and women, power-sharing in Northern Ireland and the UK’s membership of the United Nations.

On Tuesday, I was one of several bloggers who drew attention to the bishop’s endorsement, which was quoted on Green’s website. The next day, the Diocese of Chichester (which Benn works for) sent me a statement from Wallace Benn disassociating himself from the booklet. I blogged again, pleased that Benn had withdrawn his endorsement but saddened that he had not apologised. The next morning, his press officer sent me another statement, containing an apology.

I thought that might be the end of the matter, although I was frustrated that Benn had offered no explanation of how he came to endorse the booklet in the first place.

But yesterday I received an email from an Anglican living in the Diocese of Chichester. He had written to John Hind, the Bishop of Chichester (Wallace Benn’s boss), to express his concern over Benn’s comments. He has now received an email from Wallace Benn in response. While my correspondent asks not to be named, he has kindly given me permission to quote the email.

In this email, Wallace Benn declared:

My comment on the first publication of Britain in Sin in 1997 was ‘This makes interesting and disturbing reading. We desperately need to understand, as a nation, that our Creator knows what is best for us, and to return to His way as the best way to live’. It was never my intention to endorse particular contentions in the book, but to express concern about the need of our nation to follow the way of our Creator God. If my comment has given a different impression to some, it is regrettable, and I am deeply sorry.

I was not aware that my name was still being used in any way in connection with the book and I have asked for any reference to it to be removed from the Christian Voice website. I am sure you are also aware of the Statement I have made disassociating myself from the book.”

It appears that he gave his endorsement when Green’s booklet was first published, in 1997. This was also the year in which Benn became a bishop. It’s not clear whether the endorsement came before or after his appointment. This date was before Green’s methods became an embarrassment to so many other conservative evangelicals, who began to distance themselves from him. But the contents of the booklet remain the same.

Nonetheless, Wallace Benn’s latest comment raises more questions than it answers. He says that it was never his intention “to endorse particular contentions in the book”. Of course, it is possible to endorse a book’s general approach without agreeing with every point that it makes. It is, however, difficult to read any part of Green’s booklet without encountering bigotry very, very quickly.

It may be that Wallace Benn merely wanted to go along with the general approach of those who argue that Britain must “return” to being a “Christian country”. This is popular with certain conservative groups who would nonetheless oppose Green’s positions on rape, the welfare state and so on. Ironically, Green’s booklet is a reminder that the “Christian country” to which they would return was a place in which men could easily beat and rape their wives.

The Anglican who sent me the email he received from Wallace Benn has pointed out that he originally raised the issue with John Hind, the Bishop of Chichester. John Hind merely forwarded on his email to Wallace Benn, without expressing any comment himself. I find it worrying that Hind did not feel the need to comment further, at least to express approval of Benn’s disassociation of himself from the booklet.

Again, let me emphasise that I do not wish to encourage personal hostility to Wallace Benn or John Hind. We have all sinned and God offers us forgiveness. Rather, I want to draw attention to the surprisingly casual attitude towards misogyny and homophobia that appears to be displayed in parts of the Church of England.

Sentamu confuses dictatorship with democracy

The Archbishop of York made the front page of the Daily Telegraph yesterday by saying that David Cameron would be acting “like a dictator” if he introduced legislation to recognise same-sex marriage.

The archbishop, John Sentamu, knows more about dictatorship than most of us, having been imprisoned in Uganda under Idi Amin. It is therefore particularly saddening that he should lower himself to this sort of insult over marriage law.

Cameron last year promised same-sex civil marriage in England and Wales by 2015. He is not even considering granting legal recognition to religious same-sex marriage, despite the many religious people who would welcome it.

This is hardly a major part of the coalition’s programme. It appears to have been introduced as a sop to the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish government is moving much more quickly on the question. Despite the speed which the coalition can slash disabled people’s benefits and treble tuition fees, it seems that the next step towards marriage equality has to wait for four years.

Sentamu and his allies are entitled to promote their view that same-sex marriage is wrong. Both within the Christian Church and within society as a whole, people should be free to express their views on marriage. I want religious groups to be able to carry out ceremonies they believe in, without being forced to carry out ceremonies they don’t believe in.

This would mean that those faith groups that believe in same-sex marriages could celebrate them, while those that don’t believe in them would not have to. Both could promote their positions and seek to persuade others to believe in them. This is religious liberty.

It is sad that so many people who profess a belief in democracy – such as John Sentamu – will not accept this situation. They want to use the law to impose their view on marriage, which suggests that they doubt their ability to uphold this view without the force of law behind them. It is a curious fact that many opponents of same-sex marriage concentrate on preventing legal recognition rather than making ethical arguments against it. In contrast, none of the groups campaigning in favour of same-sex marriage want to force churches or other faith groups to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies against their will.

We should be having important ethical, social and theological debates about the nature of marriage. This is hampered when some of those involved in these debates persistently demand that the law sides with their own position, instead of engaging in discussion in a context of democracy and religious freedom.

Wallace Benn withdraws endorsement of pro-rape booklet

Wallace Benn, the Church of England’s Bishop of Lewes, has today withdrawn his endorsement of a booklet by the fundamentalist campaigner Stephen Green. He issued a statement after several bloggers drew attention to his endorsement yesterday.

The booklet, Britain in Sin, advocates the legalisation of rape within marriage and the criminalisation of sexual relations between people of the same sex.

As I pointed out in my blog yesterday, Green’s revamped website includes an endorsement from Benn, in which the bishop says, “This makes interesting and disturbing reading”. The booklet opposes the welfare state, a legal right for equal pay for men and women, the UK’s membership of the United Nations and power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Today, I received a message from Wallace Benn’s office in which he made the following statement:

Having now read the contents of this booklet in full I want to completely and absolutely dissociate myself from it.”

Benn’s statement implies that he endorsed the booklet without reading it all. It remains unclear which part of it he thought worthy of endorsement, but I’m still willing to give him credit for the rapid withdrawal of his remarks. I have asked his communications officer if he has asked Stephen Green to remove the endorsement from his website.

However, I find it sad that the bishop’s statement does not include any expression of apology, or of regret for any upset or offence he may have caused.

CofE bishop endorses booklet that promotes marital rape

A Church of England bishop has recommended a booklet that supports the legalisation of rape within marriage and the criminalisation of same-sex relationships.

The booklet, by Stephen Green of Christian Voice, is called Britain in Sin. While it was written a few years back, Green’s revamped website now includes an endorsement of it by Wallace Benn, the Suffragen Bishop of Lewes.

It is sad but not surprising that Green’s band of fundamentalists should support policies of this sort. What is more alarming is that Benn should endorse them.

Britain in Sin argues that the UK has declined spiritually, morally and socially due to the abandonment of Christianity since the mid-twentieth century. In the booklet,Green lists government decisions which he regards as contrary to the Ten Commandments, beginning with the UK’s membership of the United Nations in 1945.

The booklet opposes a legal right to equal pay for men and women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Green supports the death penalty and advocates an extremely right-wing approach to economics, with heavy cuts to the welfare state and the abolition of all inheritance tax. It implies that adultery should be a criminal offence.

A section of the Christian Voice website is devoted to Britain in Sin. It includes the following quote from Wallace Benn:

This makes interesting and disturbing reading. We desperately need to understand, as a nation, that our Creator knows what is best for us, and to return to His way as the best way to live.”

There are also endorsements from Paul C. Weaver, the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God (who calls it “a helpful and challenging resource”) and Barry Ashbourne, a hereditary peer, former army officer and stockbroker (“the list of unrighteous laws passed during the last fifty years is particularly helpful”).

They are joined by John Graham, chair of Protestants Today (“this well-produced and scholarly publication”) and Ray Borlase of Intercessors for Britain (“a valuable resource”).

It is of course possible to endorse a book without agreeing with every point made in it. But this booklet’s overall approach of vicious misogyny is morally repugnant. Its views on the legality of marital rape, same-sex relationships and unequal pay are entirely consistent with its other points, even if the latter seem slightly less extreme. Furthermore, none of those endorsing it appear to have gone out of their way to specify the points with which they agree or disagree.

Benn is a prominent voice among conservative evangelicals and on some issues may well be more conservative than any other Church of England bishop. It is no surprise that he argues that same-sex relationships are unethical. I fully respect his right to make this argument, however strongly I disagree with it. But it is one thing to believe that something is unethical, quite another to argue that it should be illegal. I am sometimes accused of being unduly critical of Church of England bishops. But even I thought that we were past the point at which a bishop might defend the “right” of a man to force himself on his wife.

To be fair to Wallace Benn, it is possible that he never made this comment and that Stephen Green is misleading us. In which case, Benn should say so and demand that Green remove the comment from his website instantly. To be charitable to Benn, it is possible that he did not read the booklet before endorsing it, or that he made the comment some time ago and has now changed his mind. If this is the case, Benn needs to publicly and clearly withdraw his endorsement.

At the very least, we are entitled to clear statements from Wallace Benn about his views on rape law, rape within marriage, equal pay legislation, the legality of same-sex relationships and the welfare state. Benn risks losing all claim to be taken seriously, particularly on questions of gender and sexual ethics, if he does not disassociate himself from this booklet very quickly.

Ring of Prayer to resist eviction of Occupy LSX

A court is expected to rule next week on the City of London’s request for an eviction of the ‘Occupy’ camp near St Paul’s Cathedral. Christianity Uncut have now formally declared their intention to organise a ring of prayer at the camp if eviction goes ahead. The news has been welcomed by Ekklesia.

If you want to join the ring of prayer, you can declare your intention to do so by signing a pledge of support at http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/ring-of-prayer-at-eviction-of-ocupy-lsx.html. People of all faiths are welcome.

Christians have been discussing the possibility of forming a ring of prayer to resist eviction for some time. I think the idea first came up on Twitter. As a member of Christianity Uncut – an informal network of Christians campaigning against the UK government’s cuts agenda – I’m pleased to be helping to publicise the idea.

The camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral began because the occupiers could not get closer to the London Stock Exchange. I wish they had been able to do so. The cathedral’s distinctly mixed attitude has made a headline issue out of the relationship between Christianity and radical politics.

As a result, the public have seen a variety of different Christian attitudes. Most of them can be broadly grouped into two categories. There are those approaches that want to see the Church preserving order, continuing with its routine and seeking to gently challenge injustice from within the establishment. Then there are those that wish to see the Church taking the side of the oppressed, speaking out more loudly about the sins of financial exploitation than about the inconvenience of a campsite.

Of course, I am simplifying the issue. There is a wide diversity of views within both these groups. And I do not wish to suggest that those of us who are supportive of Occupy have got it all right. We all have a lot to learn from each other. Nonetheless, there is a conflict between two different starting-points for Christianity.

The ring of prayer is an opportunity to witness to a Gospel that confronts us with uncomfortable truths. It is a chance to acknowledge our own complicity in a sinful economic system and our own responsibility for working against it. The ring of prayer will be a testimony to the power of love manifested in active nonviolence – a power stranger, subtler but ultimately stronger than the power of money, markets and military might.

An open letter to Christian Concern

I have today written to Christian Concern, a lobby group opposed to same-sex marriage. I decided to do so in response to claims they have made regarding a change in the law announced this week.

The government has announced that the ban on civil partnerships taking place in religious premises will be lifted on 5 December. This is good news for those of us who campaigned for and supported this change, and it’s been a long time coming. The change was approved by Parliament in the Equality Act, passed in April 2010. It’s taken the coalition government this long to implement it.

The change does not go far enough. This is not same-sex marriage. It still does not provide all people with equality before the law, regardless of their gender, sexuality, religious or non-religious views.

The Equality Bill, rightly, makes very clear that no church or other faith group should be obliged to host same-sex partnerships if they do not believe in them. Despite this, Christian Concern claimed in a press release on Wednesday that ”It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.

I have sent the following email to Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern.

 

Dear Andrea and colleagues,

Thank you for your press release giving Christian Concern’s views on the change in the law with regard to civil partnerships on religious premises.

You’re probably aware that this is a subject on which we disagree, although I of course respect your right to a different view, as well as your right to put out statements expressing your own views. I think this is important for free speech and religious liberty.

Please can you explain the following sentence in your press release? ”It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.  This claim appears early on in your press release and was quoted in today’s Church Times

Please can you let me know of any campaign groups, or individual campaigners, of whom you are aware, who are planning to take such action, or have discussed the possibility of doing so? 

When campaigning for a change in the law, I strongly emphasised my conviction that no church or other faith group should be required to carry out ceremonies in which they do not believe. As far as I’m aware, this is the position of every religious group that has campaigned for this change. In terms of non-religious campaigners, I know that Peter Tatchell is against any attempt to force churches to host civil partnerships or carry out same-sex weddings. I am aware that Ben Summerskill of Stonewall made a vague comment along the lines of “this may change”, with regard to the right of faith groups not to host same-sex ceremonies. But this is not Stonewall policy and I am not aware of him having taken the idea further. This is very different to anyone planning to “commence litigation”.

Your release asserts that litigation is not merely possible or even likely, but “almost certain”. Such a claim cannot realistically be sustained unless you are aware of a campaign group or campaigner seriously considering legal action. If you can provide me with the name or names of such a group or campaigner, then I will readily admit that  the statement is not necessarily inaccurate. If you cannot do so, I hope you will recognise that it is misleading, and therefore apologise and withdraw the claim.

I look forward to hearing from you. 

Shalom,

Symon 

Christian solidarity with Occupy London

A number of groups have now signed a statement of Christian solidarity with the Occupy London movement. I’m delighted to say that the statement has been welcomed by both Christians and non-Christians involved in the occupations near the London Stock Exchange.

Signatories so far are Ekklesia, Christianity Uncut and the London Catholic Worker, although we’re confident that others will join in soon. The statement has been welcomed on the Occupy London website.

The statement can be read below.

 

Christian solidarity with the ‘Occupy London’ movement 

As Christians, we stand alongside people of all religions and none who are resisting economic injustice with active nonviolence. We offer our greetings to people engaged in occupations of financial centres throughout the world.

We seek to witness to the love and justice of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ. Jesus said that he had come to “set free the oppressed”. His gospel is good news for all people. It is a challenge to all structures, systems, practices and attitudes that lead people to exploit and oppress their fellow human beings.

The global economic system divides people one from another and separates humanity from creation. It perpetuates the wealth of the few at the expense of the many. It fuels violence and environmental destruction. It is based on idolatrous subservience to markets. We cannot worship both God and money.

We are inspired by Jesus, who protested against exploitative traders and moneychangers in the Jerusalem Temple. Christianity began as a grassroots protest movement. Nonviolent direct action can play an important and ethical role in resisting injustice and achieving change.

We stand in solidarity with the ‘Occupy London’ movement and regret that they have not been able to make their protest closer to the London Stock Exchange. We applaud their commitment to co-operating with St Paul’s Cathedral and to ensuring that their camp is safe for everyone in the vicinity. We were pleased by the cathedral’s initial welcome to the camp and hope that difficulties between the occupiers and the cathedral can be speedily resolved, keeping the focus on the need to challenge the financial injustices perpetuated by the City of London.

Would Jesus kick the ‘Occupy London’ protesters off the St Paul’s Cathedral grounds?

I wrote a piece for the Guardian on this issue on Thursday (20 October). It can be read online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/occupy-london-st-pauls-christianity. This was before St Paul’s Cathedral had closed and asked protesters to leave.